The first player most football fans would associate with the surname Frei is former Switzerland captain and all-time leading scorer Alexander, a hit in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund not so long ago and currently leading the line for Swiss champions FC Basel. Alexander Frei rates as one of the most famous players ever to emerge from the Alpine nation, but ever since Basel's shock 3–3 UEFA Champions League away draw with last year's finalists Manchester United, another Frei has been thrust into the spotlight.
In the match at Old Trafford, 22-year-old Fabian Frei turned in a sparkling display alongside experienced namesake Alexander, scoring the goal which hauled his side back into it after United had taken a two-goal lead. The likeable midfielder has claimed a regular berth in the Basel team which has taken 13 of a possible 15 points in the Swiss top flight since the sixth round of matches, and has stormed up the table to fourth on 19 points. Fabian was rewarded for his efforts by a call-up to the Switzerland squad for the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers against Wales and Montenegro.
In the build-up to his first appearance in national colours, he turned to former national captain Alexander for advice. “I didn't specifically go to him in search of tips, but I did ask him just what it's like. It was obviously a huge moment for me, something you dream about as a kid when you're starting out in football," the midfielder exclusively told FIFA.com.
Alexander, scorer of 42 goals in 84 international appearances, boasts a wealth of experience at the highest level, and also featured at the EURO in both 2004 and 2008, and the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups™. Little wonder that Fabian regards his namesake as a role model, and appreciates how much he can learn from him. “He's achieved so much. I hope it might go in a similar direction for me. I look up to him, and if I end up being as successful as he's been, I'll be overjoyed. And I have plenty to learn from him out on the field too. He's one of the best in Europe in front of goal," Fabian declared.
Range of emotions
Just a few months ago, the 22-year-old could hardly have dreamed his career would take such a positive turn. In July 2009, Basel sent him out on a two-season loan to St Gallen, to continue his development and gain match practice. However, he was unable to prevent his new club from dropping into the second-tier Challenge League at the end of the 2010/11 campaign.
From that low point, the youngster's career has truly taken off, with a deafening chorus of praise from the media, and a Player of the Month award voted for by readers of Swiss tabloid Blick. The midfielder is already mature enough to know he should keep his feet firmly on the ground. “And Alex is watching to make sure I don't get carried away," he quipped. “I was relegated with St Gallen just two months ago, but it's turned round for me now. It just shows you how quickly things can change in football. I'll keep giving it my best shot, and I hope it all continues in a positive direction for as long as possible. There's no reason for me to get ideas above my station."
With that statement, Fabian underlined the special role occupied by Alexander Frei at Basel. At the age of 32, the striker is not only one of the most experienced players at the club, but also a recognised authority in the dressing room. Moreover, Frei is fully aware of his responsibilities, although he himself attaches little importance to the idea that some players are born leaders.
“I think you simply grow in authority with age and experience. And young players have to be willing to listen to the advice you give, although we're lucky enough to have players who do that here. Being a leader involves much more than just opening your mouth, because you have to deliver on the field as well," Frei senior exclusively told FIFA.com. “We have a number of talented youngsters who have everything you need for a great career. We older players are here to help them on the way.
“Take Fabian as an example of how quickly it can all happen. He went down with St Gallen and came back here with no credit on his account. But he's seized his chance, because he’s quite simply quality. He's an important member of the team now, but it's not good enough to play well for five games and badly for another five. You need consistency, so that you can review the last ten matches and say you were very good in eight of them, very poor in one, and average in the other."
Confident in the Champions League
Basel are again in action in Europe's elite club competition tonight when they entertain Portugal's most successful club, Lisbon giants Benfica. Both Freis are effusive in their praise of Tuesday's opponents, but still hopeful of a decent result.
“I think our 3–3 draw with United probably gives us the edge in terms of confidence,” Alexander summarised. “It shows we’re competitive in the Champions League, provided everything goes according to plan and we have a good day. I do believe Benfica will show us a little more respect and certainly won't underestimate us - although that's a disadvantage, to be frank."
Fabian adopted a similar tone when quizzed by FIFA.com. “I saw their game against United, and I thought they were pretty much the better team. I was very impressed with them, they basically played United off the park. It won't be easy, but we'll create chances, although we can't use the game against United as our yardstick. It'll be a completely different game," the 22-year-old said.
If Alexander and Fabian Frei are on peak form, Basel could well harvest yet more points and continue their progress towards a place in the last 16. The Swiss champions currently lead Group C on four points, ahead of both Benfica and the Red Devils.
“It's important for Basel to stay in Europe over the winter. We started out targeting a place in the Europa League, but now let's wait until we've played four matches and see if that’s still our goal," Alexander declared. Depending on the outcome of their forthcoming double-header with Benfica, Basel may yet be revising their target in the near future.